RWTH’s “Digital Heartbeat”:

Celebrating 50 Years of Computer Science at RWTH

Christine Regitz, President of the German Informatics Society, gave the keynote speech on the occasion of the anniversary of computer science at RWTH.
Photo: Martin Braun

Digitalization, artificial intelligence, data science, data security – computer science buzzwords that seem ubiquitous. At RWTH Aachen University, these and other topics are the focus of research and teaching in the Department of Computer Science. When computer science started at RWTH as a discipline, there were no smartphones with social networks, no Internet, not even PCs. In 1972, after gaining some initial experience teaching computer science as a minor in the diploma course in mathematics for two semesters, the new discipline was established with three professors, offering students an independent diploma course at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

Now, Computer Science at RWTH has been celebrating its 50th birthday – with a week of festivities held under the motto “The digital heartbeat of RWTH.” Students, alums, members of RWTH and closely associated universities, as well as business partners, gathered to participate in a programming competition, a colloquium, and a company fair. They experienced the ceremonial farewell of the graduates sent on their way with a speech by Professor Christel Beier (TU Dresden) and enjoyed the closing party at which the computer science professors Joost-Pieter Katoen, Klaus Wehrle, Carsten Honerkamp, and Martin Grohe also acted as DJs.

The keynote speech was given by Christine Regitz, President of the German Informatics Society (GI), during a festive evening. “Digitalization is shaping our societal transformation. As the leading science of digitization, computer science is therefore of particular importance. And without a strong information technology core as well as efficient, scalable, secure, reliable, and adaptable information technology systems, digitization cannot succeed,” she said, praising the fact that computer science at RWTH features these requirements and demands precisely.

On the festive occasion of the anniversary, the first Manfred Nagl Prize was awarded. With support from DAS Daten- und Systemtechnik GmbH, Dr. Matthias Volk was honored for his outstanding doctoral dissertation entitled “Dynamic Fault Trees: Semantics, Analysis and Applications”. The award’s namesake, Professor Manfred Nagl, has shaped the development of computer science at RWTH for decades. As spokesman of the selection committee, Professor Stefan Kowalewski from the Chair of Computer Science 11 (Embedded Software) said: "The Manfred Nagl Prize stands out from other dissertation awards in computer science: it recognizes cutting-edge research that is coupled with the development of innovative technologies. This makes the award an excellent fit for RWTH's vision of establishing an entrepreneurial ‘can-do’ mindset as an integral aspect of the University’s culture."

Dr. Matthias Volk (center) was presented with the inaugural Manfred Nagl Prize.
Photo: Martin Braun

20,800 First-Year Students in 50 Years

In general, the evening was dedicated to the discipline’s growth and development over the years – featuring a look back to the beginnings in 1972, of course. Professor Walter Oberschelp, appointed to a chair in Applied Mathematics with a Focus on Computer Science, can be considered the founding father of the program. Many in the university quickly showed interest in the newcomers, even though some still joked about how “computers were the result of lazy mathematicians.” “Other departments, especially mechanical engineering and medicine, overran us with offers to supervise thesis in computer science for which they would set their own discipline-specific assignments. Although clearly not based on altruistic motives, trying out computer science techniques on these kind of practical applications was quite appealing to me.”

By the end of the 1970s, there were already 500 students enrolled in computer science, and by 1985 this number had grown to about 1,000. One year later, the Computer Science Department was founded within the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. In 1999, the growing importance of computer science was also reflected with the faculty renamed the Faculty of Mathematics, Computer Science and Natural Sciences. “Computer science has changed radically in five decades and, simultaneously, so has its perception among those outside the discipline, whether at RWTH, in industry, or society. Everything is now essentially shaped by computer systems,” explains the spokesperson for the Computer Science Department at RWTH, Professor Gerhard Lakemeyer.

RWTH counted more than 4,500 computer science students in the last winter semester, the total number of first-year students over the past 50 years is 20,800, and a total of 726 doctorates were completed. At RWTH Aachen University, the discipline has had a formative influence in many areas. It is an essential component of the Internet of Production Cluster of Excellence, the Profile Areas, the centers for Artificial Intelligence and Simulation and Data Science, and it features prominently in Collaborative Research Centers and personal research funding instruments such as the ERC Grants. With Wil van der Aalst (2018) and Holger Hoos (2022), two top international researchers with Humboldt Professorships have recently been recruited for Aachen – proof of the importance of computer science at RWTH Aachen University, also in international comparison.

"The subject, which was still unknown then, has since become a massive pillar of RWTH."

“In the 1970s, one could only vaguely guess at the importance this field would one day have, both for teaching and research, as well as for industry and our society. The subject, which was still unknown then, has since become a massive pillar of RWTH,” emphasized RWTH Rector Professor Ulrich Rüdiger during the festive evening of celebration. Keynote speaker Christine Regitz added: “Openness and interdisciplinarity are the be-all and end-all for our discipline, and they are embraced here in Aachen in exemplary fashion.”

– Thorsten Karbach

Prof. Walter Oberschelp, founding father of the computer science degree program at RWTH.
Photo: Martin Braun